Written by Michael Weller and Bo Goldman
Directed by Milos Forman
In 1905 the United States was in a period of change. This is known as The Gilded Age when rapid economic growth for some Americans experienced a significant increase in wages. This was due to the explosion of industrialization across the country and led to many European immigrants traveling across the Atlantic with the promise of a better life. Black Americans benefited as well and began to see some increase in their wealth yet were still subject to Jim Crow laws. White Americans, as always, took more than everyone else and were able to grow their middle class and create some of the first Captains of Industry, multi-millionaires whose wealth gave them immense power. This time was also known as Ragtime, named after the popular musical style which featured a syncopated rhythm. As with almost all popular music in America, it was originated by Black people before becoming popular nationwide.
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is a mosaic, a story about many different people in different economic and social castes navigating this period of history. They collide with each other and drift apart. Things start off when industrialist Harry K. Thaw is convinced his bride Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) was corrupted by architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) in her youth. Thaw murders White in public, and Nesbit becomes embroiled in what the papers label “The Crime of the Century.” In New Rochelle, New York, Father watches over his wife, son, father, and brother-in-law while running a successful fireworks business. Young Brother (Brad Dourif) becomes enamored with Nesbit and begins following her, eventually striking up the nerve to ask her to dinner. Meanwhile, the housekeeper discovers a Black infant left in the garden and leads to the arrest of Sarah (Debbie Allen), who abandoned the child. Mother (Mary Steenburgen) has empathy for them and insists they live with the family rather than be thrown into the prison and orphanage systems.
Eventually, the child’s father appears, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins), who wants to marry Sarah. She is finally convinced, and he sets off to set up the ceremony. Walker runs afoul of a bigoted firehouse chief who soils Walker’s car, and the police refuse to help, eventually arresting Walker for public nuisance. As the family in New Rochelle becomes more involved in Walker & Sarah’s lives, things get complicated. Younger Brother begins to see his role as someone with privilege, which can help Walker. Along the way, we also see the story of Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), a Jewish immigrant & his daughter trying to make good with his art. This will lead to the man becoming a filmmaker as the art form is being born. He’ll cross paths with Mother and signal that the family as we know it can’t hold together.
Ragtime is a very ambitious picture. I first became aware of the story through the Broadway musical, which I still hold as my favorite, and then I read the novel, and it is overflowing with story and characters. The film was a surprise I came across in college, and this is the first time I have ever sat through the whole thing. As much as I love director Milos Forman’s work, I think with Ragtime, he was biting off more than simply anyone could chew. The scope of this story is so vast that a two-hour movie feels like it is just scraping the surface. So many side characters and plots from the book are cut away to try and streamline the narrative. However, it still feels very disjointed and doesn’t always flow together.
That said, I did enjoy the movie a lot. I think having background knowledge of the story helped in not getting lost along the way. The performances are very good, especially Howard E. Rollins as Coalhouse Walker and Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn Nesbit. The stories told here, while taking place over a hundred years ago, feel very relevant today. They center around fame & the media for Nesbit, while Walker’s is very much the ongoing story of racial injustice towards Black people at the hands of white authority. Doctorow doesn’t play things maudlin in his novel and allows the story to end on a bittersweet and even bleak note. Forman doesn’t pull back either, and the conclusion of this has everyone broken apart from where they started, hints of a world war on the horizon, and life feeling so unsure.
I would love it if Ragtime was developed into a prestige television series. The multiple perspectives and the ability to move between fictional characters and historical figures make it an interesting prospect to adapt. With a series, there would be more space to allow characters to develop and be given spotlights. That way, when the story reaches moments of confluence, the audience really understands the emotional weight of what is happening. We’d get to see more of Mother and Father’s relationship so that when the cracks form, it would ache that much more. Tateh and his daughter could get way more development as characters. The series could even step back a bit and let us see Walker and Sarah’s relationship before she runs off and tries to abandon the baby. Knowing her better would make that character’s arc hit home even harder. Ragtime is very much a movie worthy of your viewing but know that it’s certainly not a perfect film.